When Big Sister De Anna Sheffield Ward took her "little" Sharmel to Fort De Soto to join her WTSP-Ch. 10 colleagues for a picnic, she didn't realize the outing represented the 8-year-old's first trip to the beach. • Until Sharmel gobbled up some seaweed, wrapped it in foil and took it home. • "I said, 'What are you doing? You can't eat it,' " Ward said, laughing. "Now that I think back, it was because it was something different she hadn't really seen. To experience that with her was kind of neat." • Sharmel smiles when she reflects on the moment, including Ward's insistence she wear a one-piece swimsuit. • "My mama made me throw away my seaweed as soon as I got home," Sharmel said. "I was mad." • In the 10 years since, so much has changed for Sharmel and Sheffield. • Sharmel, now 18, points to that beach day and being surrounded by career-oriented adults as one of the first moments she realized she could aspire to have her own career. • As she prepares to graduate from high school, she's aiming to attend either the University of Tampa or University of South Florida St. Petersburg, with the ultimate goal of becoming a respiratory therapist or a nurse anesthetist. • Sheffield grew so fond of the program she walked away from her broadcasting career, joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay ( bbbsfl.org) and now serves as the agency's chief development officer. • Ward's work with Sharmel recently earned her the designation of Big Sister of the Year, but president Stephen Koch said they really consider Sharmel the "little of the year." • Ward and Sharmel recently spoke with Times columnist Ernest Hooper about their relationship.
What makes De Anna Tampa Bay's Big Sister of the year?
Sharmel: She's awesome. She's understanding — sometimes (laughing). I can tell her anything. She's like a mother figure, but in a sisterly way.
How has having a big sister changed you?
Sharmel: It's given me somebody I can talk to. At times when I don't want to talk to my mother about something, it's like having a different perspective. I don't have to worry about disappointing her or having that reaction before I tell my mother. She's like having a best friend that I call my sister. It gives me that role model thing.
So she's not going to say, "Are you crazy, girl?"
Sharmel: No, she'll say it, but it'll be in a nice way. Don't get her wrong, she will tell me when I'm wrong or when I shouldn't be doing something.
De Anna: I do it out of love. I'm honored that we have such a great relationship. It's grown over the years and had ups and downs, but this is a real friendship, a real relationship and we care about each other.
What have you gotten out of your relationship with Sharmel?
De Anna: I wouldn't be the person I am today without having the relationship we have. It made me a better mother, a better wife, a better person. She's opened my eyes to a lot of things. She's kept me grounded. At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we talk about how the big broadens the horizons of the little, but sometimes we forget the little can broaden the horizons of the big. Whew, I got through that without crying.
Sharmel, do you see the world differently?
Sharmel: Yes. When I'm with her, she showed me more than what I see at home. When I was growing up, I lived in a housing project and when I met her I had never seen anything other than that. With her being in my life, I've seen better than what I grew up with. nstead of the projects, I've seen people who are actually doing something with their life instead of being home not doing anything. It's given me hope to be successful and not just blend in with the society I grew up with. Do you remember when you first met?
Sharmel: I was 7. She took me to the library (downtown). I wanted to go to the kiddie section where the picture books were, but she wouldn't let me read the picture books. I ended up getting a chapter book with a lot of words in it. I didn't want to go with her after that.
De Anna: It's funny how you have different perspectives in the same situation. I was nervous. "What if she doesn't like me?" We went to the library because that's one of my favorite places and Sharmel was very smart, but I don't think she knew how smart she was because she wanted to look at a picture book instead of a book that was on her level. But I saw that she had a lot of potential and was really smart. She just wasn't fully showing what she could do.
How did that relationship develop with her trying to cajole you to be all you can be?
Sharmel: It took time. Besides my mom, there really was nobody there to push me so I really had nobody to look at. She took me out of my element and showed me that I could be better.
If someone reads this and wonders if they would make a good Big Brother or Big Sister, what would you say to encourage them?
Sharmel: If they want to make a change, anybody can do it. All you have to have is a good heart and want to show somebody that there's more to life. The money doesn't matter to kids like me. If she was poor, I would still love her because she has a big heart. If you have a big heart and you care about a person and care about what they want to do, you can do it. Sign up.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.